Laline Paull‘s debut novel, The Bees is different from any I have read before. She uses the life cycle of bees and the workings of a hive for inspiration, and in doing so points out fascinating equivalents to modern society. One ordinary bee, Flora, guides the reader through the novel’s mysterious world.
Flora’s story takes place over the course of one year, taking advantage of the inherent drama of the seasons–from rich foraging in summer, to desperation as pollen sources disappear in the fall (the “Age of Austerity”), to the hunger of winter, hibernation, and the utter joy and release of spring.
Danger lurks everywhere. The encroaching town limits the number of blossoms within safe flying distance, so Flora takes risks for the sake of the Hive. She enters a warehouse, lured by a sneaky wasp. Later, she cannot resist the flowers in a greenhouse–not as idyllic as it seems. Most dangerous of all is her own body’s insistence on producing offspring when breeding is punishable by death.
Shelf Awareness published a Maximum Shelf feature on The Bees and I just love its comparison to The Game of Thrones. Political maneuvering, secrecy at the highest levels, and beheadings are likely the reasons behind that one. The article’s author also teases out strains of Greek mythology, Aesop’s fables and religious ritual. The feature includes a great interview with the author.
For all that, I find the novel can be read as a straight-forward thriller, albeit one set in a truly unusual place. Paull was inspired by an obsession with bees, including current environmental threats to their survival. She did the research to make her world as scientifically accurate as possible.
I would like to end with a quote from Emma Donoghue’s New York Times review, “Forward-thinking teachers of high school environmental science and biology will add “The Bees” to their syllabuses in a flash. Not only is this novel a gripping story of a single bee’s life, it is also an impossibly well-observed guide to the important role bees play in our human lives.” Hear, hear!
PAULL, Laline. The Bees: A Novel. 352p. Ecco. May 2014. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9780062331151.
In this unique novel of intrigue, Flora 717 is born a lowly sanitation bee. All bees live by the central commandment of the Hive, Accept, Obey, and Serve. A flora serves by cleaning. She is not allowed to make wax, or forage, or tend the nursery, and certainly not breed. (None but the Queen, the Holy Mother, may breed.) But Flora is exceptional in ways that allow her to bypass the restrictions inherent in the Hive hierarchy without detection (thanks to her ability to hide her thoughts from the police). She sees the Hive from all angles, and witnesses the forces that threaten it, from pollution to political maneuvering to bombastic, demanding Drones. While out foraging for pollen, Flora encounters the Myriad, creatures like Wasps and Spiders who attack and plot against the Hive. She even reads the prophecies in the Library’s story panels, senses that the Sage—the priestesses surrounding the Queen—are being secretive, and discovers the treachery and sickness at the heart of her world. Paull’s world-building is extraordinary: in the Hive itself and the outside world from a bee’s point of view. Flora is like an adolescent who longs to figure out where she fits in and find her true identity. She is celebrated by some and considered a monstrous deviant by others, but only through her deviance is she able to fulfill her destiny. The controls on procreation bring to mind Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) while the strict societal roles echo the factions in Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” trilogy (HarperCollins).—Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City